a-n Magazine Review
Duane Hopkins' first feature film Better Things is not easy to put into words. That's probably why it was made into a film in the first place. Last night at the Renoir launch screening, the director introduced it as a love story or, maybe more to the point, as an intermingling narrative of 'love storers'. What ensued was a string of beautifully shot images of nature mixed with the daily lives of youngsters and old people, surviving through the inexplicable lows of existence, the unbearable losses and suffering. Teenager Jess dies of an overdose and her boyfriend starts injecting to forget. Guilty for having introduced the drug to her and silently suffering the agony of never being able to 'see her face again', he cuts himself off from reality to go and find her again and again in his induced, sterilized paradise. Although nothing is said about the 'why', we intuitively feel that her death is implicated within their relationship. Sitting next to Jess's mother in her living room, he stares at a picture of Jess and him holding each other and smiling. He's never seen the photograph before. Her mother offers it to him but he leaves it behind. An ethereal, white light fills the next shot of the open front door through which he fled.
At the same time, his best friend is laying on a bed, swallowing an ecstasy pill with his lover. When the drug's effects are on the wane, the lovers' anxiety begins to grow. Clinging to each other, they embrace but their mind is dangerously straying into darker realms. On the platform, their intertwined, elongated and immature adolescent bodies look utterly defenseless and when they finally part, the girl murmurs to him that they will not meet in this place again.
In the town's supermarket, an old lady finds a tape and places it in the middle of her grocery basket. She then proceeds to wrap it up and leaves the present on the living room table. Her husband returns home from hospital but recoils when she comes to him, refuses to go to bed when she calls him and avoids her presence by watching TV. She sits on the bed, waiting, and delicately caresses his fluffs of grey hair when she thinks he is asleep. A deep secret hovers over them. It will remain between them, forever. The old man cannot forgive her, even when she asks. 'It is such a long time ago' she whispers. He tries to explain that he desperately wanted to come home, that he wanted to touch her but that something held him back. He wonders if one could die from a broken heart. She takes her glasses off to wipe her eyes.
Deep in my guts, I can feel the incredibly strong and intimate connection between these two mature lovers, a true couple in real life, which makes their story all the more moving and their lone suffering unbearably sad. When he opens the gift and they finally embrace I can't stop the tears from flowing, releasing the painful tension from my body.
Duane Hopkins had already touched me with his short film Love me or leave me alone, which also takes place in the countryside and explores the ups-and-downs of two teenagers' relationship. In Better Things, he has the time (93 minutes, which is probably all that my nerves could take) to explore its psychological and emotional depths and employ all his cinematic tricks to relate them to the audience. Which is, in effect, what Better things does at its best, subjecting the viewer to total somatic empathy with the characters. They were picked up from the rural area in which Duane filmed the scenes. He himself comes from the country and wanted to make a film of what he knew about, rather than telling yet another urban story of alienation. Working with non-actors was challenging but also extremely rewarding, both in revealing social truths but also in shaping the reactions he needed to create. The mature couple was especially difficult to engage with as they had grown to embody fixed personalities. They had been apart for only one day during their entire life together and found it difficult to act what was required of them. This is exactly what Duane was looking for - the difficult tension, especially that of the old man, which was diffused 'accidentally' onto the screen and created the desired emotionally-charged atmosphere. There are no middle-aged love storers in Better Things. They were edited out after it was decided that the contrast made by the young and the old would have a stronger effect on the overall story.
This tragedy of love is narrated over a background of beautiful, romantic landscapes that keep emerging to arrest the eyes as if one was in front a painting. One shot shows an autumnal scene, followed by the same idealistic view covered in snow. The shot is long enough for me to wonder what specific lens was used, if the light was indeed natural or if digital imaging was employed to produced the particular fairy-like effect. On the next shot, the frame is enlarged to show the old man staring at the view himself, which turns out to be an old painting hanging in the hospital corridor. His grey hair seems almost part of the painting. The winter of his waning life? Or the souvenir of an impossibly distant past that seems yet so close that it blurs into the now. Time is a metaphor for that which we cannot hold any longer.